Security must not trump the rule of law in Europe

The attacks in Europe from disaffected citizens cannot justify watering down of fundamental freedoms, writes Martin Newland.

Belgians pay tribute to victims of the terror attacks in Brussels. Nicolas Maeterlinck / AFP
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‘The European values of democracy and of freedom are what was savagely assaulted by these tragic attacks,” said the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, after terrorist operations claimed the lives of another 32 people in Europe.

The comment was probably intended to conjure images of settled European democracies coming under attack from the foot soldiers of murderous foreign ideologies.

But there is a possibly unintended relevance to Mr Michel’s remarks, because the threat to European democracy and freedom derives also from the fact that most of the perpetrators of the atrocities in Belgium and Paris were (and are) citizens of European countries.

Countering domestic extremism, albeit enlivened ideologically and operationally by ISIL or other terrorist organisations, should not be allowed to prompt a re-examination by western governments and security services of the principles of due process and the protection of personal freedom.

Already the far right is mobilising, gaining more political power and social recognition. France has just stepped back from plans to revoke the citizenship of those associated with terrorism who were born in the country. In the United Kingdom, there have been calls to reverse the presumption of innocence for those caught travelling to Syria or Iraq.

European leaders such as David Cameron, the UK prime minister, have stated that violent extremism can be on the same continuum as extremist rhetoric.

A recent review into the activities in the UK of the Muslim Brotherhood – an essentially theocratic movement with what Mr Cameron subsequently termed “a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism” – found that the organisation enjoyed widespread influence among so-called mainstream Muslim organisations in the UK.

Such organisations, together with extremist preachers and others, can kindle in local and usually less affluent Muslim communities a kind of social and moral elitism and an aloofness from UK mainstream society, its values and policies at home and abroad.

This elitism or social aloofness finds a purchase in the hearts and minds of the socially and economically marginalised, as well as in the hearts and minds of those involved in crime and antisocial activities, from Bradford in the UK to the suburbs of Paris.

If we are to accept the continuum argument – that extremist views can act as precursors to violence – then how can the public best be protected? At what stage might it be OK for security services to stop monitoring someone and instead detain them in case thoughts and words lead to action?

How inviolable is the presumption of innocence and of due process to western legal systems as European communities find themselves confronted with scenes of carnage perpetrated by people who were born in those very communities, with no clear or obvious early pathways to, or links with, extremism?

One is reminded of the Guantanamo dilemma. During the so-called War on Terror many people were detained without knowing the charges against them and without access to a legal forum in which evidence against them could be tested.

The rule of law, a key foundation of any civilised society, requires a clear reason for detention, a testing in court of those reasons, a prosecution process supported by a chain of evidence and final acquittal or conviction on the basis of that evidence.

If the War on Terror was to be a defence of western principles against fundamentalism – an oft-stated key differentiator in the so-called “clash of civilisations” – then it should not have involved a straightforward violation of those same principles.

ISIL wants to manufacture divisions along ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines. Further afield, it wants to divide Muslim communities within Europe and segregate Muslims as a whole from the mainstream. It wants to force changes in the rule of law and due process, in the civilised treatment of individuals, in the defence of freedom of thought and movement.

Social and political fragmentation is ISIL’s main measure of productivity. The attacks are threatening the European principles of freedom of movement and employment across borders. ISIL has, in the words of one commentator, “weaponised” migration by helping to create the conditions for a mass exodus of refugees to Europe and a subsequent tightening up of border controls.

The UK stands on the brink of a referendum on European membership, a debate that is being increasingly influenced by the mistrust of European border and immigration policy.

In Europe, we are being played. And we are being played with the help of our own people, who plant bombs in airports and on railways. We should not tolerate far-right extremism or resort to watering down civil protections.

This is the ultimate goal of the extremists, from ISIL to other individuals and groups who choose to erect barriers between mainstream society and those members of society who also happen to be Muslims.

Last week a delivery driver, Junead Khan, was convicted of planning terrorist acts after police found he had, in tandem with ISIL, made plans to kill military personnel in the UK.

Police had visited him four times with offers to help divert him from radicalism. When he refused, they kept him under surveillance until they obtained enough evidence to make an arrest. They knew Khan was up to no good, but they went by the book when it came to legal process.

Europeans will have to accept more surveillance. Resources will have to be channelled at a far greater rate into national and supranational security operations and into policing. We will have to stop bungling internal security. But we should not allow the attacks “from within” to erode legal and civil protections.

Martin Newland is a former editor-in-chief of The National